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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Music professor remembers Cuba trip at lecture

Dr. Gustavo Camacho. // Photo courtesy of Western Washington University Department of Music
Dr. Gustavo Camacho. // Photo courtesy of Western Washington University Department of Music

Diverse music and classic cars straight from the 1950s  were just some aspects unique to Cuban culture, giving many first-time visitors the feeling of going back in time.

Assistant Professor of Horn and Brass Area Coordinator Dr. Gustavo Camacho held a presentation on a trip to Cuba he took in spring 2015 Tuesday, Oct. 11, in the Performing Arts Center.

Four other professors from across the U.S., who were also professional musicians, joined Camacho on the trip.

Camacho and his colleagues were the first professional brass quintet to visit Cuba ever, which meant the music they played was something many Cubans were hearing for the first time.

“One of the audience members said that when we first started playing, she just could not believe what she was hearing because it was totally new to her,” Camacho said.

Jazz in the U.S. is different from jazz in Cuba, which is a fusion of American jazz as well as rhythms and harmonies developed in Cuba, other Caribbean islands and Latin America, Camacho said.

“In Cuba, you hear music everywhere. You hear it in the streets, you hear it in cafes and in restaurants,” Camacho said.

The musical aspect of Camacho’s presentation was of interest to junior Katie Taylor, who is a music education major and has been playing the flute since fifth grade.

“I really liked the musical aspect. I actually studied abroad in Vienna last year, so I really like learning how different cultures use music to connect with each other,” Taylor said.

One of the first things that Camacho noted when he landed in Cuba was the apparent difference in culture.

“I’ve been to other countries where there’s a lot of culture shock for me. I’ve been to Russia and China and those are obviously all the way across the globe,” Camacho said. “Cuba is just 75 miles off of the coast of Florida, yet compared to Russia and China, I actually felt more culture shock walking out of the airport in Havana, [Cuba].”

Camacho attributed this culture shock to much of the landscape, in terms of cars and buildings, remaining unchanged since the 1950s, which made him feel as though he was stepping back into time.

“We think of Cuban citizens as maybe being oppressed and miserable in their lives, when that’s not the case. They’re actually really happy people who work within their own system. I think it’s characteristic of humans that we tend to adapt to our situation and make the most of it.”  

Dr. Gustavo Camacho

What was especially shocking to Camacho is the historical context for this.

Fidel Castro became the leader of Cuba in 1959 and implemented a socialist system that tightly controlled the country’s imports and exports. This is why many cars are from the 1950s, because those were the final American cars to be imported into Cuba, Camacho said.

The other type of cars on the road are Russian cars from the 1970s and 1980s, due to the fact that the Soviet Union supported Cuba financially until its dissolution in 1991, Camacho said.

“You’re seeing two different types of cars, and the quick realization that it’s all politically connected to what is happening in the world is kind of amazing,” Camacho said.

Freshman and vocal performance major Elizabeth Feeney, whose musical talents range from vocals to viola to percussion, enjoyed when Camacho discussed Cuba’s historical background.

“It was really interesting, not just for a music person, but for someone who likes history, because [Camacho’s presentation] had a lot of historical connections that can be made,” Feeney said.

Cuba’s socialist system is also reflected in the propaganda seen on billboards throughout the country, touting words such as “We want you to be like Che [Guevara],” “Socialism or Death” and “Down with Capitalism,” Camacho said.

Despite poor infrastructure in Havana and many citizens lacking electricity, young people spend their evenings at the Malecon, which is the seawall that stretches along the coast of Havana, Camacho said.

Camacho cited less exposure to technology as a possible reason why Cuban children and young adults seemed to be happier than their American counterparts.

“It just seems like technology is negatively affecting us,” Camacho said.

Camacho hoped the audience would take away from his presentation the idea that despite their strict Socialist government, many Cuban citizens are happy and have adapted to their situation.

“We think of Cuban citizens as maybe being oppressed and miserable in their lives, when that’s not the case,” Camacho said. “They’re actually really happy people who work within their own system. I think it’s characteristic of humans that we tend to adapt to our situation and make the most of it.”

Not passing judgment on other cultures because they differ from our own was something that Camacho thought was important for American citizens to consider.

“It’s easy to say that another person who does not have the same life as us is not as well-off as us, but that would be looking through our own perspective,” Camacho said. “I think trying to see other cultures from their perspectives, as best we can, could be beneficial for American citizens in general.”

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